Feeling the Awards Fatigue

One of the advantages of being lazy sporadic about blogging these days is that it affords me the longer view on some matters I never would have given all that much thought to before. To wit, My customary habit in years past had been to post any and all mystery genre-related awards shortlists, congratulate the nominees and open up the comments for discussion, if there was anything to discuss.

This year I didn’t, which meant the seemingly rapid-fire announcement of Anthony, Macavity and Barry Award shortlists and impending/recent announcement of other award winners (Hammett, Thriller, CWA Daggers, Crimespree Awards, etc. etc) has me wondering if perhaps we’re all going about this awards thing the wrong way.

Of course, I can’t exactly slough off my own awards judging responsibility, since I’m in my third and final year as chair of the Mystery/Thriller category of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. And it’s a cop out to admit those awards are different, although by virtue of being handed out under the auspices of a newspaper, it’s only partially germane to what I’m about to discuss.

The awards given out by the mystery genre generally fall into two camps: those given out by writer-oriented organizations (MWA, CWA, ITW, IACW, etc) and those given out by reader-oriented periodicals (LAT Book Prize, Strand Critic Awards, Barry, Macavity, Crimespree, EQMM Readers’ Award.) The LAT Book Prize is kind of an outlier, since it stems from a newspaper, not a magazine, and is just one prize of many literary categories. And the one prize that doesn’t fit, and holds the two camps together, is the Anthony Awards: given out for fans, by fans.

My frustration comes from a closer look at category two. When it comes right down to it, what difference does it make if an author wins a Barry or a Macavity, when both periodicals in question – Deadly Pleasures and Mystery Readers Journal – have low circulation numbers that, from what I understand, overlap a great deal? I’m not privy to circulation details for the Strand Magazine or CrimeSpree (or, for that matter, Mystery Scene, which does not give out annual awards) while both EQMM and AHMM run in the low-to-mid five figures, but my feeling is that there’s a big echo chamber at work, and being anointed with one or multiple awards in a calendar year ultimately amounts to…not that much.

Get outside the echo chamber and the disconnect becomes apparent. Winning an Edgar doesn’t amount to much of a sales bump, so one can imagine there’s even less effect from one or a combination of all the awards I’m talking about. Casual readers browsing at a Wal-Mart or even an independent mystery bookstore scratch their heads at the sheer number of prizes they’ve never heard of, that won’t factor much into their book-buying decisions (much as blurbs are derided, often for understandable reasons, they up the probability of a book sale for a given reader at a much higher rate than do the vast majority of awards. That’s true in most genres, not just crime fiction.)

Put another way: is John Hart’s success due to his multiple Edgar wins and award nominations, or that his publisher, Minotaur, made a concerted effort to get significant bookstore co-op money that has paid off in a big way, so much so that the paperback edition of THE LAST CHILD was one of Borders’ “make books” this spring?

So far, no new arguments. But the other issue I have is the self-selection most of these “category two” awards employ. You have to be a subscriber to MRJ to vote for the Macavitys. Technically you have to be a subscriber to vote on the Barrys, though the rules are pretty relaxed. You have to be a member of Bouchercon to nominate and vote for Anthony Award-worthy books. Self-selection is, again, understandable, but what does the genre lose by keeping things to the converted choir, so to speak?

The problem is that my ideal solution, which is to break this chasm wide-open and create something very much akin to the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year in the UK, which is 100% open to the public and has some decent publicity surrounding the nomination and eventual voting process, got trotted out here and failed miserably. Right, remember the Quills? I do, only because the one year I went was the most godawful example of pointless spectacle I’ve ever seen.

So instead, for 2011 or 2012 or some year in the not-too-distant future, how about something like this, heretical as it might sound: Instead of, as George Easter proposed for the Barrys, trying to beat the Edgars out of the gate with nominations, let the MWA get first crack, as I believe they should. Then in March, trumpet the news of the North American Mystery Awards (or some other appelation of your choice) that is fully open to the public for nominations in the usual categories – Best Novel, Best First, Best PBO, Best Non-Fiction, Best Short Story, Lifetime Achievement, etc etc – and that is essentially a blown-up amalgam of the Barrys/Macavitys/Anthonys/etc. Maybe each periodical can select a distinguished book or author and there can be a citation/award for that. Create a longlist. Create a shortlist. Ramp up the publicity and the social media. Then hold a ceremony/bacchanalia at Bouchercon and televise/livestream the whole damn thing. And then everyone can get drunk and party.

Or there’s a better idea, or several better ideas. Or we can stick to the status quo. But in keeping things the way they are right now, I wonder if the mystery community does itself a disservice with a series of small-sized congratulatory measures instead a larger, more concentrated effort that celebrates the genre more boldly, more comprehensively, and oh yeah, more seriously than what we’re doing now. If there are so many fans and so many people reading crime fiction, shouldn’t they have even a speck more investment – and if they do, they might be inclined to read (and buy!) more books, attend more conventions and do all the things we desperately want them to do but aren’t always adept at reaching out to them for?